Jewish Calendar

Question:  When does the Jewish calendar begin from? Is it the actual Rosh Hoshana? Obviously it’s not the common era as defined by christians.  When was year one and how was that decided?

Answer: In the early part of the first or second century of the Common Era, a Midrash called Seder Olam (“The Order of the World”) was written, analyzing Biblical chronology beginning with creation, and dating each subsequent event from that moment.  The midrash concludes with the destruction of the second Temple.

To the author of this Midrash, the beginning of recorded time for human beings on earth started with the creation of Adam & Eve.  The first of the Hebrew month of Tishre, Rosh Hashana, is the birthday of Adam and Eve, and the birthday of the world.

If we accept this assumption for the moment, then we and the Midrash can come up with an objective number of years since creation for every event in the Hebrew Bible and beyond.  This past Rosh Hashana, then, we celebrated the 5757 anniversary of the creation of the world.

Even if you don’t believe – as I don’t – that the world is only 5757 years old, we continue to use this system of dates because you are correct that it does not make sense to date Jewish rituals based on the death of Jesus, using a Christian calendar; the life of Muhammad, using a Muslim calendar, or any other calendar system based on an event completely outside our tradition.  Historically right or wrong, this is our nearly 2000 year old system of marking time.

Question:  What part of the 19 year cycle, regarding the leap month Adar II, are we in now?

Answer: 5757 is the 19th and last year of a 19 year cycle.  5758 will be the first year of a new cycle.  Leap years occur on the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years of the cycle.  If you are interested in a lot of interesting calendar information, check out the book, The Comprehensive Jewish Calendar, by Arthur Spier.  It is a 400 year Gregorian/Jewish calendar, along with all of the rules and calculations that determine the Jewish calendar.

Question:  On each month of my Jewish calendar, there is a small notation such as Heshvan molad: Friday 10:51 am, 4 halakim.  What do molad and halakim mean and what is the significance of this notation?

Answer: The word molad means birth.  On the calender, the molad is the exact time which the new moon appears, signaling the beginning of a new month.  A helek is 1/1080 of an hour, which equals 3 1/3 seconds.  10:51 a.m. and 4 halakim means that the new moon appears at 10:51 and 14 seconds in the morning.

Question:  When does the day begin and end?

Answer: The Jewish day begins (and ends) at sundown.

Question:  Does the Jewish community recognize the Jubilee Year, Leviticus Ch. 25, as the Catholic church has delegated 1999 as a jubilee year, restoring all things as they are meant to be?

Answer: The Jubilee year has not been formally recognized in the world since the destruction of the first Temple and the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E.  It is doubtful that it was ever fully observed even before then.  Because of the more than 2500 years that have passed since the Israelite community kept track of Jubilee years, no one really knows when the next Jubilee year is scheduled.

I am interested in the Catholic church’s declaration that 1999 is to be a Jubilee year, and how they plan to celebrate it.  Do they plan to renounce all debts, and return all property to its original owner?

In any case, their pronouncement will have no effect on the Jewish community, which does not recognize the validity of the Catholic church’s determination of the Jubilee year.

Question:  How do you count your years?  I know the Jewish year is 5760 and soon will be 5761. Jerusalem fell in 587 or 586 BC. Can you tell me what year does 587 BC equal ??? – my guess is 3201.

Answer: This year is 2000 C.E., or 5760 by the Jewish calendar.  The year 587 B.C.E. was 2587 years ago.  Therefore, the Hebrew equivilent of 587 B.C.E. is 5760 – 2587, or the Jewish year 3173.

Question:  A boy is born on Shabbat.  Will his bar-mitzva portion be the portion that was read on that day or the next week’s (example:  he is born on Shabbat Bereshit.  Will his bar-mitzva be Bereshit or Noah?)?

Answer: The calculation of a Bar Mitzvah parasha is a bit more complicated than your question assumes.  A boy becomes Bar Mitzvah on the day after his 13th birthday, according to the Hebrew calender.  This does not necessarily fall on the same Parasha as his birthday.  Because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar-solar calendar adjusted by leap months approximately every three years, some years there are only 50 weeks, while other years there may be 55 weeks.  Some years, certain smaller Parashot are read together, other years they are read separately.  Sometimes, therefore, a given parasha fall as four weeks earlier or later than on a previous year.  If you would like to give me the child’s birthday and year, I can look up the date and closest Parasha of his Bar Mitzvah.

Question:  Thank you very much for the information.  I actually have a question about two dates:

My son Avi was born on April 5, 1994 (24 Nissan 5754).  I thought his portion would be Shemini–is this so?

My cousin’s son was born on November 28, 1987 (7 Kislev 5748).  I thought his portion would be Vayishlah–is this so?

Thank you for any and all information you could give me about this matter.  If you could suggest any books that I may read on the subject, I would appreciate this.

Answer: Avi would become Bar Mitzvah on 25 Nisan, 5767, Friday April 13, 2007, and the Parasha on the following Shabbat is, indeed, Shemini.

Your cousin’s son would become Bar Mitzvah on 8 Kislev 5761, Tuesday, December 5, 2000, and the Parasha on the following Shabbat is Vayetze (the following week is Vayishlach).

My information comes from The Comprehensive Jewish Calendar, by Arthur Spier.  It contains calendars from 1900-2100.  While the introduction gives the mathematical rules for the calculation of the calendar, most of the book is not fascinating reading – just pages and pages of calendars!

For other reading about the calendar, look at the article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and there is also a fascinating book called, The Seven Day Cycle, by Zerubavel.  It is actually about the development of the seven day week, but has a great deal of calendrical information as well.

For reading about B’nai Mitzvah, I always suggest, Putting God on the Guest List, by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin.